Fueling Up for the Marathon

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January 23, 2017


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Fueling for a long-distance event can be challenging, even for elite marathoners. It requires practice and awareness to fine tune each individual’s needs and tolerances. For decades, runners have been fueling before, during and after races with carbohydrates. Thousands of runners will be doing the same for the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon on January 29.

If you are a runner or endurance athlete, carbs are really your best ally in helping you go the extra mile — or 26.2 miles to be specific. Carbs play a key role in energy production and that’s why they are crucial for exercising.

The Role of Carbs

As with any food group, carbohydrate type and quantity matter. In the case of long distance runners, timing also determines how much energy they use, store and utilize in the recovery process. In the first 90 minutes of exercise, we have enough stored carbohydrates in the form of glycogen in liver and muscle tissue to power us through the race. How fast we run determines how quickly we go through our storage. The moment our tank runs out, we “hit the wall”- a term used to describe the point where the body becomes heavier and slower because it has run out of fuel (carbs).

Carb Loading

The best way to maximize your glycogen storage is to increase carbohydrate intake throughout your day during the 2 to 3 days leading up to race day. This is referred to as “carb loading.” Good carbohydrate options are brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, legumes, starchy vegetables and fruits. Aim for 3 to 5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight throughout the day.

Dinner before race day should not be a feast as this can cause bloating, indigestion and discomfort on race day. It should be carbohydrate based. In this case, low fiber is preferred (white pasta, rice, fruit without skin and little vegetables) – opposite to what we should do on a regular basis. Also, dinner should be very low in fat, lactose and small amounts of protein.  The purpose is to speed up digestion, maximize carbohydrate intake and reduce the risk of promoting bowel movements at inappropriate times.

Race Day Nutrition

Breakfast on race day morning should be 2 to 3 hours before heading out, with familiar foods. For example, 1 to 2 slices of bread with peanut butter and jelly, oatmeal with fruit and nut butter, smoothie low in vegetables. Or if you are feeling queasy, consuming a sports drink and water may also work for you. Before you head out, take a small carbohydrate-based snack with you, such as a small fruit or pieces of fruit, granola bar or a sports drink. Depending on your start time, you may be waiting a few hours to start running and the last thing on your mind should be feeling hungry again.

During the race, it’s important to keep consuming carbohydrates to prevent a drop in energy. These sources of carbs can include gels, chews, blocks or food — any of these will work if they were tolerated during training. Do not try anything new, not even a new brand, as they have different ingredients and different people tolerate different types or amounts of the sugars used. Stick to your game plan.

Proper Hydration is Vital

Hydration is important regardless of weather. Plan to drink 4 to 6 gulps every 15 to 20 minutes, alternating between sports drinks and water. If you are taking a gel, you should drink water immediately afterward, as these can be too concentrated in sugar and cause cramping if not diluted with water.

Finally, even after you have finished the race, your body is still burning calories and going through your carbohydrate storage and possibly muscle tissue – so you may have to replenish your body with carbs in a timely manner. After enjoying a celebratory brunch with family and friends, set your alarm every 2 to 3 hours to consume different sources of carbohydrates as meals or snacks to avoid a headache and recover much faster.

Carla Duenas is a runner and registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida.

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